A children’s book sends the wrong message when describing people of color as ‘workers’

I moved to New Haven last summer with my two small children, and the city’s welcoming approach to migrants from around the world has been a counterpoint to the hateful statements about “others” that we hear from the White House.

But an art book teaching children the wrong lesson about color reminded me of how deeply white supremacy is embedded in our culture, even in places we think are safe.

My 5-year-old daughter attends a wonderful Quaker preschool that enrolls students of mixed ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Boxes of free books line the hallway, to encourage parents to read to their children. In June, my daughter took home one of the books, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a 2010 series on color. It’s called “Purple,” and each page of the tiny book is a reproduction of a painting containing something purple.

Six of the book’s pages contain human forms, in paintings depicting people using something purple. The opposite page describes the action: “Flowery wallpaper lines a girl’s room” and “A woman wears an apron over her skirt.”

All the human figures are white, except on one page. The book describes all the human figures in nonspecific terms — woman, man, girl — except on one page.

On that one page are the only black or brown figures, and the book describes them as “workers” — even though they, like the white figures, are engaged in a neutral activity, picking grapes, which anyone might do.

So a child reading the book sees that all the people are white except for the workers, who are black or brown. She also learns that when white people engage in a productive activity — for example, a woman folds laundry — they are people, called “man,” “woman” or “girl,” but when people of color do so, they must be workers.

Reading the book to my daughter, I felt a wave of pain and empathy for what our children are up against, especially our children of color. From children’s books to presidential tweets, we adults create the environments that our children must navigate, where they learn about the world and about themselves. If America’s largest art museum, whose mission includes presenting works of art “across all times and cultures,” publishes books like this — well, we know what less responsible actors are doing.

The messages in the “Purple” book were subtle and pernicious, and I wasn’t sure how to explain that to my daughter. I said:

“Mommy thinks the person who wrote the book made a mistake. Because they wrote that black or brown people are workers, but really all kinds of people are workers, not just black or brown people. And they mostly showed white people in the book, but we know there are all kinds of people.”

But how do I offer her an alternative view of the real world, in which she will see many black and brown people in low-wage jobs, many white people in supervisory positions, many women taking on primary child-care responsibilities and brown and black migrants hiding in churches for fear of deportation?

I wrote to my daughter’s preschool, the Friends Center for Children, and was grateful when they said they would use the book as part of diversity training for staff. I wrote to the nonprofit group Read to Grow, which donated the book, and was grateful when they said they would pull it from their inventory.

A Metropolitan Museum of Art vice president said my concerns were “valid” and added that the museum was no longer selling the book. “It is central to our mission to promote diversity and inclusion,” Rich Pedott wrote. “Within this, it means sharing an honest understanding of the intended meaning of art by the individuals who created them — such as the figures portrayed as workers in the Davies artwork you reference.”

A majority of New Haven’s 130,000 residents are persons of color, and one quarter of its residents are children. They deserve a more appropriate lesson in color.

I was encouraged, however, a few days later, when my daughter broached the subject of color and identity again, keeping open our discussion space to try to work it out and reminding me that big people have a lot to learn from small people.

“Mommy,” she said, smiling, “People say that Cynthia is black, but she’s not black, she’s brown. Isn’t that silly?”

I smiled too. “Yes, and people say Julie is white but she’s not white, she’s tan! People have such funny ideas about color.”

The author is a human rights lawyer and the Robina Foundation Visiting Human Rights Fellow and Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School.

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